Robots and ‘green energy’ win the day at Intel ISEF | Science News for Students

Robots and ‘green energy’ win the day at Intel ISEF

Top awards go for a window-washing robot, low-cost big batteries and ‘green’ capacitors
May 18, 2018 — 1:07 pm EST
ISEF 2018 winners

The top three award winners at the 2018 Intel ISEF competition are, from left: Meghana Bollimpalli, Oliver Nicholls and Dhruvik Parikh.

Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Maybe it took nerves of steel. Or maybe these young researchers merely showed steely determination. But dozens conquered the odds, here in Steel City, to claim big prizes. Roughly 1,790 students competed, this week, for almost $5 million in prizes in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). And about 35 in every 100 of the finalists would go home with some award.

Oliver Nicholls took home the top prize and $75,000. This 19-year-old from Barker College in Sydney, Australia, designed and built a robot that can wash the windows on skyscrapers. His project earned him the Gordon E. Moore award, named for Intel’s co-founder. "I hadn't expected to get this far," he told Science News for Students. "I was hoping for a second place, maybe."

window robot inline
Oliver Nicholls' robot can wash a skyscraper’s windows. It works even in moderate winds, the teen reports.

Two other winners also took home huge Grand Awards as well.

ISEF has been honoring young researchers since 1950. Created and still run by Society for Science & the Public, this remains the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. Sponsored this year by Intel, ISEF brought together students from 81 countries, regions and territories. Their 1,383 projects competed in 22 different research categories.

“The breakthrough ideas presented by the winners and finalists demonstrate how the brilliant minds of future generations will make the world a better place," says Maya Ajmera, president of the Society, based in Washington, D.C. "These young innovators are the stewards of our future, and we look forward to seeing all that they accomplish as they continue to pursue their interest in STEM.” (The term stands for science, technology, engineering and math.)     

Spritz, scrub, squeegee, repeat

Washing windows on skyscrapers is a dangerous job. That became clear to Oliver Nicholls when he learned of two local accidents. These inspired the teen to invent a picnic-cooler–sized robot to take on the risks instead.

A computer controls Oliver's 12-to-15 kilogram (26-to-33 pound) device. It sprays a little water onto a window, then rubs microfiber-covered scrubbers across the glass to scrub away dirt. A windshield-washer–style squeegee removes any excess water.

When the robot needs to move from one window to another, propellers kick into gear. They push the robot away from the building. Cables then pull the robot to the next window. At this point, a different set of propellers holds the robot tight against the window as the cleaning cycle repeats.

If commercial, this robot might be able to pay for itself after cleaning just one 7-story building, Oliver estimates.

Besides winning the overall competition, Oliver’s project also led the pack in the Robotics and Intelligent Machines category.

Cooking up low-cost supercapacitors

Capacitors (Kah-PASS-ih-torz) are devices that store energy. Unlike batteries, which store energy chemically, capacitors do so by physically storing electric charge — electrons (the negatively-charged particles in atoms). Supercapacitors, of course, are capacitors that can store a relatively huge charge.

For some applications, supercapacitors outperform batteries. Why? When energy is needed, they can deliver a lot of it fast. One example where this is prized: a medical device called a defibrillator (Dee-FIB-rih-lay-tor). It’s used to zap a person’s chest when they’re having a heart attack, says 17-year-old Meghana Bollimpalli. She’s an 11th-grader in Arkansas at Little Rock Central High School. Other uses for supercapacitors include military equipment.

Meghana Bollimpalli
Meghana Bollimpalli developed a “greener” energy storage material, essentially by raiding the kitchen pantry. For her research, she won a $50,000 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award at the 2018 ISEF competition.
Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public

One big problem, though, is the high cost of most supercapacitors. They tend to use costly elements, such as platinum. Some devices may run $4,000. Even the cheapest supercapacitors can cost about $300. Meghana thought there must be a way to cut their cost.

And at Intel ISEF she reported finding one.

The teen wanted a carbon-rich material that could store lots of electrons. She also wanted the ingredients to be low-cost and easy to obtain. To find them, she essentially went to the pantry.

She started out with molasses, used tea leaves and tannin. That last material is a bitter, carbon-rich substance produced by some plants (including tea). To this mixture, she added a pinch or two of ingredients that contained nitrogen and phosphorous, which are common plant nutrients. Those elements would help the other materials store electrons, she points out.

Meghana then cooked the mix in a microwave for 30 minutes. The end result was a carbon powder. She could use it to coat an electrode in the supercapacitor, she says. (Electrodes are the parts of a capacitor or a battery where electrons are supplied to a circuit or received from that circuit.) If her new powder were packed tightly enough, it could even become the electrode.

Meghana’s material can store about 90 percent as big of a charge as an equivalent mass of some supercapacitors for sale today. But cost is where her version shines. Instead of costing hundreds of dollars, one made with her recipe would likely cost less than $1, she estimates.

This project was not only deemed best in the Chemistry category, but also earned Meghana an Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award and $50,000.

Building a better battery

Batteries don’t last forever. They’ll run down as they are used. But batteries also can run down when not in use. That happens whenever electrons or other charged particles leak from one side of a battery to the other, notes Dhruvik Parikh, 18. The senior attends Henry M. Jackson High School in Bothell, Wash.

In a battery, electrons flow from the negative electrode, known as an anode (AN-oad), through to the positive electrode, or cathode (KATH-oad). But a battery’s charge can sometimes drain down when the barrier between the positive and negative electrodes is leaky, Dhruvik explains. This can be an especially big problem for the large batteries used to store power generated by wind turbines and solar panels. Those big batteries often have liquids inside them as well (not the pasty materials typically found inside small portable batteries). With those liquids, leakage of charged particles between the two sides of the battery is even easier.

To limit that, Dhruvik looked to create a better barrier to separate the two chambers of liquids inside big batteries.

Parikh Dhruvik
Dhruvik Parikh created a new component to help keep “big” batteries from running down when not in use. The innovation earned him a $50,000 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award at this year’s ISEF competition.
Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public

He started out with a plastic membrane 0.15-to-0.5 millimeters (0.006-to-0.02 inch) thick. Full of microscopic holes, that plastic was fairly leaky. So the teen coated it with a paste. It included a silicon-rich material called tetraethyl orthosilicate (TEH-tra-ETH-ul Or-tho-SIL-ih-kayt). When this chemical reacts with water, it makes silica. (That’s another name for silicon dioxide, the material in sand.) And that silica did a pretty good job of plugging up the tiny holes in the plastic membrane, Dhruvik found.

This novel membrane cut the leak of charged particles inside batteries by more than half, Dhruvik showed. His new material also is about 30 percent less costly than the material now used inside big liquid-filled batteries. That’s a big deal, he notes. Today, that barrier can account for up to 40 percent of a big battery’s total cost.

Dhruvik’s project beat all the others in the “Energy: Chemical” category. Like Meghana, he, too, picked up an Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award and $50,000.

Seven of these “best of category” winners also earned trips overseas. Some will visit research labs in India. Others will visit science fairs or attend youth science forums in Europe. Some of the roughly 625 winners at this year's competition even won college scholarships.

“Intel congratulates Oliver Nicholls, Meghana Bollimpalli, Dhruvik Parikh and all of the participants on their groundbreaking research," notes Rosalind Hudnell. She is an Intel vice president and president of the Intel Foundation. “When students from different backgrounds, perspectives and geographies come together and share their ideas," she says, "there is no limit to what they can achieve.” 

Other major Intel ISEF 2018 award winners

The following students each won “best of category” awards worth $5,000 in this year’s competition:

Animal Sciences: Anna Spektor, 17, and Ayman Isahaku, 18, of Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisc.

Behavioral and Social Sciences: Amy Shteyman, 18, of John L. Miller Great Neck North High School in Great Neck, N.Y.

Biochemistry:  Rhea Malhotra, 15, of Moravian Academy in Bethlehem, Pa.

Biomedical and Health Sciences: Nabeel Quryshi, 18, of University School of Milwaukee in Milwaukee, Wisc.

Biomedical Engineering: Ronak Roy, 16, of Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, Calif.

Cellular and Molecular Biology: Ella Feiner, 18, of Horace Mann School in Bronx, N.Y.

Computational Biology and Bioinformatics: Marissa Sumathipala, 17, of Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Va.

Earth and Environmental Sciences: Vasily Tremsin, 18, of Campolindo High School in Moraga, Calif.

Embedded Systems: Burzin Balsara, 18, and Malav Shah, 18, of Plano Senior High School in Plano, Texas.

Energy: Physical: Sathya Edamadaka, 16, of High Technology High School in Lincroft, N.J.

Engineering Mechanics: Frederik Dunschen, 19, of Friedensschule Munster in Munster, Germany.

Environmental Engineering: Raina Jain, 15, of Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn.

Materials Science: Daniel Kang, 16, of John F. Kennedy High School in Tamuning, Guam.

Mathematics: Muhammad Abdulla, 18, of West Shore Junior/Senior High School in Melbourne, Fla.

Microbiology: Logan Dunkenberger, 17, of Roanoke Valley Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Roanoke, Va.

Physics and Astronomy: Ana Humphrey, 17, of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va.

Plant Sciences: Yueyang Fan, 16, of No. 2 High School of East China Normal University in Shanghai, China.

Systems Software: Ruihua Chou, 16, of The High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China in Beijing, China.

Translational Medical Science: Edwin Bodoni, 17, of Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colo.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

anode     The negative terminal of a battery, and the positively charged electrode in an electrolytic cell. It attracts negatively charged particles. The anode is the source of electrons for use outside the battery when it discharges.

application     A particular use or function of something.

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers.

atom     The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.

battery     A device that can convert chemical energy into electrical energy.

biochemistry     A field that marries biology and chemistry to investigate the reactions that underpin how cells and organs function. People who work in this field are known as biochemists .

bioinformatics     A research field that uses computers in collecting, classifying, storing and analyzing biological information to better understand genes, their function and their activities on the molecular scale.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

biomedical     Having to do with medicine and how it interacts with cells or tissues.

biomedical engineering     Combining engineering and biology to aid human health. Professions in this field develop artificial limbs, use biotechnology to produce new drugs and develop models to understand how diseases work.

capacitor     An electrical component used to store energy. Unlike batteries, which store energy chemically, capacitors store energy physically, in a form very much like static electricity.

carbon     The chemical element having the atomic number 6. It is the physical basis of all life on Earth. Carbon exists freely as graphite and diamond. It is an important part of coal, limestone and petroleum, and is capable of self-bonding, chemically, to form an enormous number of chemically, biologically and commercially important molecules.

cathode     The positive terminal of a battery, and the negatively charged electrode in an electrolytic cell. It attracts positively charged particles. During discharge, the cathode attracts electrons from outside the battery.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Scientists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) Chemistry also is used as a term to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties. People who work in this field are known as chemists.

circuit     A network that transmits electrical signals. In the body, nerve cells create circuits that relay electrical signals to the brain. In electronics, wires typically route those signals to activate some mechanical, computational or other function.

commercial     (in research and economics) An adjective for something that is ready for sale or already being sold. Commercial goods are those caught or produced for others, and not solely for personal consumption.

computational     Adjective referring to some process that relies on a computer’s analyses.

computational biology     A field in which scientists use mathematics and computer programs to better understand living things.

current     A fluid — such as of water or air — that moves in a recognizable direction. (in electricity) The flow of electricity or the amount of charge moving through some material over a particular period of time.

electrode     A device that conducts electricity and is used to make contact with non-metal part of an electrical circuit, or that contacts something through which an electrical signal moves. (in electronics) Part of a semiconductor device (such as a transistor) that either releases or collects electrons or holes, or that can control their movement. (in batteries and capacitors) The components that give up electrons (the negatively charged part, or cathode) or receive electrons (the positively charged anode).

electron     A negatively charged particle, usually found orbiting the outer regions of an atom; also, the carrier of electricity within solids.

element     A building block of some larger structure. (in chemistry) Each of more than one hundred substances for which the smallest unit of each is a single atom. Examples include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, lithium and uranium.(in chemistry) Each of more than one hundred substances for which the smallest unit of each is a single atom. Examples include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, lithium and uranium.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

environmental science     The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.

heart attack     Permanent damage to the heart muscle that occurs when one or more regions of it become starved of oxygen, usually due to a temporary blockage in blood flow.

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF)     Initially launched in 1950, this competition is one of three created (and still run) by the Society for Science & the Public. Each year now, approximately 1,800 high school students from 81 countries, regions, and territories are awarded the opportunity to showcase their independent research at Intel ISEF and compete for an average of almost $5 million in prizes. 

mass     A number that shows how much an object resists speeding up and slowing down — basically a measure of how much matter that object is made from.

membrane     A barrier which blocks the passage (or flow through) of some materials depending on their size or other features. Membranes are an integral part of filtration systems. Many serve that same function as the outer covering of cells or organs of a body.

microbiology     The study of microorganisms, principally bacteria, fungi and viruses. Scientists who study microbes and the infections they can cause or ways that they can interact with their environment are known as microbiologists.

microscopic     An adjective for things too small to be seen by the unaided eye. It takes a microscope to view objects this small, such as bacteria or other one-celled organisms.

molecular biology     The branch of biology that deals with the structure and function of molecules essential to life. Scientists who work in this field are called molecular biologists.

nerve     A long, delicate fiber that transmits signals across the body of an animal. An animal’s backbone contains many nerves, some of which control the movement of its legs or fins, and some of which convey sensations such as hot, cold or pain.

nitrogen     A colorless, odorless and nonreactive gaseous element that forms about 78 percent of Earth's atmosphere. Its scientific symbol is N. Nitrogen is released in the form of nitrogen oxides as fossil fuels burn.

particle     A minute amount of something.

physical     (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are due to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).

physics     The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy.

platinum     A naturally occurring silver-white metallic element that remains stable (does not corrode) in air. It is used in jewelry, electronics, chemical processing and some dental crowns.

robot     A machine that can sense its environment, process information and respond with specific actions. Some robots can act without any human input, while others are guided by a human.

silica     A mineral, also known as silicon dioxide, containing silicon and oxygen atoms. It is a basic building block of much of the rocky material on Earth and of some construction materials, including glass.

software     The mathematical instructions that direct a computer’s hardware, including its processor, to perform certain operations.

Society for Science & the Public     This nonprofit organization was created in 1921 and is based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, SSP has been not only promoting public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: The Regeneron Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). SSP also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).

supercapacitor     A capacitor with two conducting surfaces, or electrodes (like other capacitors), on which a charge of energy is stored. Unlike ordinary capacitors (but like batteries), an electrolyte separates the two electrodes. In this sense, a supercapacitor is essentially a battery-capacitor hybrid.

tannin     A reddish and bitter plant chemical used to tan leather. Tannins are also a natural pesticide. Pesticides kill vermin, such as rats, insects and lice.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

wind turbine     A wind-powered device — similar to the type used to mill grain (windmills) long ago — used to generate electricity.